Movie Review: A One-Woman Sex Work Play becomes an Info-Gathering mockumentary, “Sell/Buy/Date”

Tony winning actress, writer and director Sarah Jones turns her “Sell/Buy/Date” sex work show into a 100 minute “teachable moment” movie. She uses “protests” against the just-announced “film version” of the play as an impetus to exploring the subject further via professionals involved in the work, porn actors to pole dancers to prostitutes.

Jones’ noble intentions lead to some informative interactions and confessions kind of buried in a mockumentary that starts humorous and talks its subject to death long before “That’s a wrap.”

It’s a laudable effort packed with facts and eye-opening perspectives. But the glib packaging makes for a mostly humor-starved, clinical and tedious film. If nothing else, she underscores the point that this can of worms promises to open. “It’s a complex” subject.

Jones begins by introducing us to characters from her play — Lorraine, her “Jewish bubbe” mascot and conscience, Bella a “sex work studies” coed, Nereida, a Dominican/Puerto Rican civil rights activist and Rashid, a young Uber driver whose guise she assumes to have somebody “street” to bounce a lot of these ideas off and get “KnowwhutI’msayin’?” takes.

The announcement that her long-running show might become a movie earns her Internet blowback, which elderly Lorraine sums up as almost fitting for someone who was “so busy trying to be ‘the wokest,'” and got lost in this subject she still doesn’t know everything about.

So Sarah and her entourage visit a “sex positive pole dancing class” and hear from Tish Roberts, a human rights activist “still walking in that life” as a prostitute.

She meets with Lotus Lain, a porn actress and sex worker advocate, who warns Sarah “You’re about to get yourself canceled!” A quick Instagram pose with Lotus can fix that.

We and Sarah take a tour of Nevada’s famed “Chicken Ranch” legal brothel, led by Alice Little, a prostitute and (BDSM) “educator.”

We hear from a transgender sex worker, and from porn actor/”Adult Media Monetizer” and former Biohazzard rock star Evan Seinfeld. Sarah sits down with Indigenous women activists who point to the “man camps” of the labor intensive oil and construction industries being a magnet and impetus for sex work, especially in nearby Native American reservations.

Jones, like the viewer, gets a bit of whiplash from the “their business is them” self-exploitation view of women selling their looks and bodies, and the opposing view that those profiting the most and suffering the fewest consequences are the men who run the brothels and the “johns” who are barely punished for soliciting sex workers.

Transgender sex worker and activist Esperanza von Secca lectures our playwright, actress and filmmaker about what a “violent business this is for women to be in.”

It’s a lot to “unpack,” Sarah says as herself. And her various guises from the play react differently to each new piece of information, each shift in point of view from “empowering” and giving women “agency” to what an “exploitive” “trap” this work often is.

Also muddying the waters is the ever shifting language of this subject, and the vaguely less pejorative euphemisms thrown about here are enough to make some worry about”doing the work” to keep up with the latest terminology or vex the hell out of anyone fretting about “weasel words” taking over the conversation.

“Still walking in that life?” Give me a break.

A couple of film stars — Rosario Dawson and Bryan Crantson — show up for “advice to Sarah/support Sarah” cameos.

Taken as a whole and received as a film, “Sell/Buy/Date” isn’t a particularly graceful vehicle to disseminate all this new-to-most-of-us information and perspectives. The connecting scenes with Sarah in disguise as Rashid or Bella, etc. feel clumsy and grow less amusing the longer “Sell/Buy/Date” goes on.

The documentary material is informative and mind-opening. The mockumentary surrounding it is a bit of a drag, and lets the movie down.

Rating: unrated, adult subject matter, profanity

Credits: Sarah Jones, Rosario Dawson, Evan Seinfeld, Alice Little, Amy Bond, Esperanza Fonseca and Bryan Cranston.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Sarah Jones. A Cinedigm release.

Running time: 1:38

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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